The Use of Symbolism in Essay Writing, A Guide


When writing fictional literature, symbolism is a device often used by authors; where something tangible, an object, animal or person, is used to represent a specific idea or entity. Symbolism can be used as a way to spice up your text and engage your readers; it is especially useful in writing essays. Let’s define symbolism, see when to use it, and understand how it makes a huge difference in our writing.

Photo, Robert Eklund.

How do we define symbolism? You already know some of the literal devices that help stories stand out – metaphor or paradox, for example – these are tools taught in any school or university. The symbolism is no different. It is a literal device that helps readers identify with the text. Whether it’s a poem, a novel or a short story, if there are recurring motifs used, it’s probably symbolism at work, try re-reading the text, it may have a deeper meaning than at first sight.

Think about the symbols that surround us. We know that a cross can represent a church or death, and another type of cross could represent a hospital. We know that the Statue of Liberty represents the American notion of freedom; a deeper connotation could be Madonna with child representing the notion of motherhood. You can use your own symbols to represent ideas or entities in your text. If you’re not sure how to use symbolism in your stories, you can always check out the free essay examples at; looking at a sample essay can help you learn about other people’s work and understand how to use symbolism in your own work. Reading as much as you can is a must if you want to be a solid writer.

Why do we use symbolism? The main reason writers choose symbolism as a key part of their storytelling is to add depth to their work. When you don’t tell the reader directly what you really mean, but point it out in some way, your story grows. It shows a stronger character and catches the imagination of their audience. Students must show readers what they mean through the text; in this way, their narrative becomes more sophisticated. Saying something exactly how it is can be obvious and boring.

What are the most famous symbols used? There are three main types of symbols you can use in your text. Let’s lay them out for you here, you can think of ways to showcase them in your work…

The conventional symbol: The best known of the three. The word “table” represents a piece of furniture with four legs and a top; there is no inherent relationship between the object and the word. English speakers simply agree, by convention, that the word “table” refers to this particular type of furniture. Also consider flags, images that have a story behind them, but whose design is ultimately convention; most people don’t know the stories behind the flags of the countries they “are”.

The accidental symbol: The opposite of a conventional symbol in that it is based on personal experience, but again there is no firm relationship between the symbol and what it symbolizes. If someone has a bad experience in a certain place, they will learn to connect that place with negative emotions; if you eat something terrible, you will associate it with the type of food or restaurant. Unlike conventional, however, the accidental symbol cannot be shared by anyone else. For this reason, accidental symbols are rarely used in myths, fairy tales, or works of art written in symbolic language because they are not easily conveyed unless the writer adds a long commentary to each symbol it uses.

The Universal Symbol: Here there is an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and what it represents, which is most likely what your teacher is talking about when carefully reading an essay. Universal symbols are understood across time and culture; because they connect the outer world to the inner, sensory world. Emotions and sensory experiences endure, as do stories heavy with universal symbolism. A fire symbolizes power and energy; a flock of black birds symbolizes darkness and impending doom.

The use of symbolism in essay writing

Photo, Artem Maltsev.

How to use symbolism in your writing? Symbolism can be very effective in showing without saying. This can make your story more interesting to read and therefore more popular. Let’s take a closer look at how you can use symbolism throughout your story…

Show without saying: The first most common way to do it. For example, in Harry Potter, the characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron could be read as a symbolic definition of his thoughts, emotions and actions in alignment. Harry could be seen as a symbol of action, Hermione for thought and Ron for emotions. When they work together, a person is balanced and can be successful.

Adding images in context: Watch 1984, we can understand that Orwell refers to “Big Brother” as the government, for example. This image helps him capture the symbol well in the mind of the reader.

The darkest meaning of a symbol: Using symbols for dark purposes could also be a risk worth taking. Looking back at the Harry Potter saga, Voldemort used as a negative character is a symbol for the power-hungry men who rule the world. It can be dark and scary, but it gets the point across.

Connecting Themes and Characters: Symbols could also be used to connect various themes in the text. For example, money and materialism are strongly linked in the Great Gatsby through the symbol of the tongue.

Wrap: Using symbols in your text is a great way to help your readers visualize the story. It can also be a tool for explaining more convoluted or complex processes within a story. Additionally, the use of symbolism adds to the emotion of the text and keeps readers in your fictional world.

Vendy Adams is a researcher and content writer. He knows his skills well and is passionate about reading. Vendy enjoys volunteering and helping students succeed in their studies in her spare time.


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